Heading into 2021, the Yankees had what appeared to be significant depth with three viable major league options in centerfield. Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, and Mike Tauchman all had shown the ability to play the position in recent years, and in theory would cover for each other when needed. That depth evaporated quickly as Tauchman was traded, Hicks headed to the injured list, and Brett Gardner was forced from his role as a fourth outfielder into regular playing time. The Yankees were in the bottom half of the American League in centerfield production and will have to seriously evaluate the position moving forward, even with Hicks expected return from injury in 2022.
By the time all was said and done, in 2021 the Yankees saw 10 different players take reps in centerfield as they attempted to negotiate the season that was surrounded by COVID scares and numerous injuries. Brett Gardner was the oldest everyday centerfielder in the league this past season, and was six years older than the next closest player to recorded 100 games at the position in the AL.
It’s clear that the Yankees need to consider finding the centerfielder of the future. Down in the minor leagues the team has a number of centerfield prospects on their top-30 list, including Jasson Dominguez and several closer-to-MLB prospects who could be added to the 40-man roster early this offseason.
Everson Pereira was one of the top prospects in the 2017 International Free Agent class. The Venezuelan outfielder showed strong bat-to-ball skills and started to develop his power once he arrived in the Yankees organization. After aggressively assigning Pereira during his first two seasons in professional ball, the Yankees took the slow approach with him this year and it paid off in a big way.
Pereira did not start his season until late June — when the Florida Complex League kicked off — but it only took him three impressive games to earn a promotion to Low-A Tampa. His impressive start continued not just in Low-A, but carried with him to High-A Hudson Valley. Throughout the season Pereira smashed 20 home runs in just 188 at-bats finishing with a .303/.398/.686 slash line across three levels.
Taco opuesto!— HV Renegades (@HVRenegades) September 18, 2021
Everson Pereira with the dinger! pic.twitter.com/cMLXmPcK5r
This will be Pereira’s first year as a Rule-5 eligible, but he has positioned himself to either start the season with Double-A Somerset or at least reach that level relatively quickly at the start of the 2022 campaign. There is a lot to be excited about with Pereira, but he will start 2022 several levels away from the major leagues. The Yankees will need to protect him in order to capitalize on his talent down the road, but they also need to balance their roster with the ability to contribute in the coming year.
Brandon Lockridge was one level above Pereira for much of the season, and overcame an early season injury to put together a strong year once he reached the Double-A level. A fifth round draft pick of the Yankees in 2018, Lockridge is known for having some of the best speed in the Yankees system, but he tapped into more power this year hitting 10 home runs in 43 games at the Double-A level. Lockridge hit .328/.382/.557 at Double-A with 13 stolen bases in 14 attempts. He is likely ticketed for Triple-A next season and will have to be protected during the Rule-5 draft as he is an exciting prospect with solid tools.
Roster spots will be tight for the Yankees heading into the offseason. Gardner and Hicks both have deals for next year and another one of the Yankees top prospects, Estevan Florial, reached the big leagues and played well at the major league level this past year. It is easy to understand why fans that have only seen Florial play at the major league level are calling for him to take a larger role with the team as he has produced well when called upon. But in a larger sample size, Florial has struggled in Double-A and Triple-A — he posted just a .741 OPS across both levels. He will have another year of minor league options that give the Yankees the flexibility to move him up and down this coming year, but it is not clear if he is a long term answer in centerfield for the team.
Many of the best teams in Yankees history have been anchored by strong centerfield play. It is no surprise that the Yankees’ below average production in centerfield was often cited as a major cause of their struggles. In the coming months the team will have to balance their rising prospects with their immediate needs in the coming season.